Former players help raise awareness

CHICAGO -- Efforts to raise awareness about concussion dangers are getting a boost from a collection of former National Football League players.

The five-month old Chicago Concussion Coalition announced on Friday they've enlisted and trained 10 former players to talk to young athletes, coaches and parents about causes and recognition and avoiding traumatic brain incidents.

"Concussions are an incredibly neglected problem," said Chris Nowinski, coalition chairman and co-founder and CEO of the Sports Legacy Institute. "They've ruined a lot of lives. The list in Chicago is quite striking of athletes who have been diagnosed with degenerative brain diseases from too much head trauma that hadn't been taken care of."

Among the players are former Bears Otis Wilson, Jerry Azumah, Major Hazelton, Brian Glascow and Charlie Brown.

Chicago is the center of Nowinski's efforts, which include a 90-minute program he developed in 2007 in Boston with partner Dr. Robert Cantu. Nowinski hosted two presentations on Friday at a South Side middle school.

The rapidly-growing coalition -- now with 48 individuals, government officials, companies and medical concerns -- partnered first with the Chicago Public School system and hopes to expand education efforts beyond the city limits.

"Ten years ago nobody cared about this," said Nowinski, a 33-year-old Arlington Heights, Ill. native. "Now Chicago is a model for the rest of the country. It's an honor to find organizations and hundreds of people really committed to this issue -- to protect young athletes."

Nowinski played high school football at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, was an all-Ivy League defensive tackle at Harvard and then embarked on a short-lived run with World Wrestling Entertainment.

A 2003 concussion ended his pro wrestling career and led to a new calling as a spokesman for concussion issues. Nowinski's 2006 book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis," chronicled his experiences and concerns about trauma.

In 2007, he founded Boston-based SLI to advance brain study, treatment and prevention among athletes and military personnel.

The February 2011 suicide of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duersen spotlighted brain trauma after an autopsy discovered significant brain damage possibly attributed to hits sustained during his football career.

"Dave Duersen's tragedy catapulted this to the forefront," said Reggie L. Smith, the Chicago chapter president of the NFL Retired Player's Association. "People (now) understand that from outside, someone looks OK, but internally there can be damage that was done years ago."

Smith said he recently completed training and will soon begin making public appearances to promote concussion awareness.

In January 2011 the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting public school athletes with concussions from returning to sports without medical permission.

The concussion coalition plans seven more training sessions through early August at the South Side Illinois Eye Institute. Nowinski, meanwhile, will return to Illinois in May to address a conference of state high school athletic directors in Peoria.

"This is the gold standard (in Chicago) and we'll talk a lot about what we've done here," he said.